On a sports field in Melbourne’s west, a soccer team is warming up in the autumn sunshine. After a last-minute pep talk from their coach, the players take their positions and the referee blows his whistle.
Similar scenes play out every weekend across Australia’s towns and cities but the suburban ordinariness masks the anticipation surrounding this game. It is the first game of a new season for members of Afghanistan’s national women’s team, who fled to Australia after the Taliban seized control of their country last August.
The team is competing in a Victorian state league after securing the backing of A-League club Melbourne Victory.
“It’s a new start, it’s a new beginning,” says Fati*, the team’s 20-year-old captain. “We have the chance to be what we’ve been dreaming of.”
Eight months ago, soccer was the last thing on their minds. Just days after the fall of the capital, Kabul, the players learnt that two Taliban members had come to the office of the Afghanistan Football Federation demanding to know their names and whereabouts.
“Our coach told us the Taliban came and asked them, ‘Where is the Afghan national women’s team?’ ” says Mursal*, a 19-year-old defender. “They told them, ‘We know you have a girls’ team, you have to show us.’ ”
Officials refused, she says, but even so one of the players began receiving death threats via text message.
Fearing they were in imminent danger, Fati reached out to a former captain of the Afghan team, Khalida Popal, who now lives in Denmark.
She set in motion a train of events that would eventually lead them to Australia, after Craig Foster, the former Socceroos captain turned refugee advocate, and human rights lawyers lobbied the government to help evacuate them.
But first, the players had to get through Taliban checkpoints to the airport.
Fati buried her soccer jerseys and medals in her family’s courtyard, packed a backpack and headed off with her family and teammates. “I left everything behind that says soccer,” she says.
For two days they battled through crowds outside the airport, struggling to get past the thousands of other Afghans who were desperate to board the last flights out before foreign troops left. They stood for hours in a drain filled with dirty water.
“The Taliban were in front of us with a gun,” says Mursal. “If they know you are a soccer player, it’s so dangerous. Even when I’m telling this my heart beats so fast.”
Fati got through one of the airport gates and then co-ordinated with Australian soldiers to get her teammates and three of her siblings inside.
But her parents, who she had become separated from, did not make it onto the plane. Beaten by the Taliban and fearing for their lives, she says, they decided to return home with her youngest sister.
“That was the moment I just broke into pieces,” Fati says. “Because of me, they were in that situation.”
In the following weeks, 38 Afghan women and girls, a mix of current and former national players as well as club players, arrived in Australia with most settling in Melbourne. The youngest is 15 years old.
Many of the teammates live together and have become each other’s surrogate families. They often laugh and make fun of each other, but in quieter moments they speak of the massive upheaval they’ve experienced and the lives they have left behind.
“We lost our youth,” Mursal says. “We lost our days with our families.”
Just before her country was plunged into chaos, she found out she had been accepted to study graphic design at Kabul University. Now she works in a factory packing popcorn and learning English.
Fati was studying economics at university in Afghanistan as well as working as a volunteer English teacher and training three times a week. She now works in a Melbourne restaurant, has just completed a leadership course and helps co-ordinate the team.
The players have notched up a series of firsts since arriving in Australia. Visits to the beach and seeing a woman drive a tram have been among the highlights.
Many of the older players are keen to learn to drive and some have already got their learner’s permits. But these new experiences are tainted by fears for their families back home.
A spate of bombings has rocked Afghanistan in recent weeks and the lives of women and girls are being increasingly restricted by the Taliban.
The new government reneged on a promise to allow girls to return to secondary schools and has banned women from travelling abroad without a male companion.
Not long after they seized power, a Taliban leader told SBS News that women would not be allowed to play sport.
Fati and her teammates seem painfully aware of the vast gulf between their daily lives and those of the sisters, mothers and friends they left behind.
She says her friend who wasn’t able to evacuate now stays at home all day, unable to go to university or to play sport.
Even before the Taliban takeover, Fati says, being a female soccer player in Afghanistan came with many restrictions. The women had to train on a field with armed guards stationed around the perimeter and wearing a hijab was mandatory.
On Sunday, dressed in white jerseys and shorts over long black tights, some players wore black headbands while others played in ponytails.
“It’s a great thing in my life to have this opportunity, to be able to play the way I want, with no restrictions,” says Fati, who is also the team’s goalkeeper.
The federal government’s announcement in the March budget that it would offer an additional 16,500 humanitarian places over the next four years to Afghans sparked a flurry of excited phone messages between the players, hopeful that their relatives may be among them.
Mursal, whose family fled to Iran after her brother, a former soldier, escaped a kidnapping by the Taliban, finds the separation from her loved ones the hardest thing with which to cope.
“Now we have a missing part of our life,” she says. “I hope as soon as possible we will have that missing part back and we can have a normal life.”
On Sunday, the players returned to the soccer field, guided by Jeff Hopkins, Melbourne Victory women’s head coach.
The club is also providing equipment, clothing and logistical support for the team, whose official name is Melbourne Victory Afghan Women’s Team. For home games, they’ll wear the red and white they wore as Afghan national players.
Craig Foster says ensuring the players have the opportunity to continue their soccer careers is vital.
“They are an incredible symbol of women’s rights,” he says. “Every time they walk on a field, every time they kick a ball and demonstrate the love they have for the game, it strikes a blow to the Taliban’s ideology.”
For 90 minutes, the young women focus again on the sport they love, their persistence earning them numerous shots at goal that come heartbreakingly close. Finally, with five minutes to go, the team’s tallest striker sends the ball flying into the back of the net.
The girls sprint to embrace each other but the referee calls the striker offside, puncturing the players’ elated celebrations. The final whistle sounds. There’s no fairytale ending. It’s a nil-all draw.
After three cheers from their opponents, the ETA Buffalo Sports Club of Victoria, a team founded by refugees from Timor-Leste four decades ago, the Afghan players leave the field downcast.
Jeff Hopkins tries to lift their spirts, telling them he wants “no sad faces” and that today’s game is just the start. He is impressed by their desire not just to play but to win.
“They’re pretty combative,” he says. “They’ve got a very strong will to win.”
On the bus ride home, Mursal remains deflated. “I expected better than this,” she says, explaining that the girls have been too busy finding new homes and jobs and studying English to devote much time to training. “We will work on our weaknesses.”
Fati’s disappointment with the result is tempered by the realisation of what she and her teammates have achieved after their traumatic journey. She says being back on the pitch made her feel “fresh and powerful”.
“It was amazing to have my teammates together again,” she says. “I felt like I lost something but I found something today.”
* Nicknames have been used for security purposes.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Goal focused".
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